October 9, 2020

The Wages of Giving Offense: From King to Clown in 23 Days

Offense of the Month, August 2020
It’s been remarked (in these pages, at least) that the wages of giving offense are often worse than actual harmful behavior by the offender. A case in point: Jerry Falwell, Jr., who from 2007 until a little more than a month ago had been president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. During his tenure Falwell sinned in matters big and small and several stories of rascally behavior have pointed to corrupt practices, but despite growing evidence of his illicit conduct, Liberty’s board of trustees showed no inclination to investigate, admonish, or reform its CEO. Then Falwell posted to Instagram a janky photograph of himself partying on a yacht, and within three weeks he was out—from king to clown, the emperor ejected from Eden.

Liberty was co-founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College by his father, Jerry L. Falwell Sr., and Elmer L. Towns. Senior was a nationally known Baptist minister and evangelical leader, a controversial proponent of conservative political and cultural values, and founder of the Moral Majority in 1979. Liberty was established as a conservative religious academy; its avowed aim was to train “champions for Christ.” The name was changed in 1977 to Liberty Baptist College, to avoid the unsavory connotation of Lynchburg, and then to Liberty University in 1985.

When Falwell Sr. died in 2007, Liberty was in debt with an endowment of only about $6 million. It was just beginning to expand its online learning program. Jerry Jr., a lawyer by training, took over the reins (unlike his father and brother, he is not a clergyman). Their father’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, next door to Liberty, went to younger brother Jonathan, an ordained minister. Today, Liberty is one of the largest nonprofit private universities in the country, with an endowment of more than $1.6 billion and a booming enrollment. (Sources differ on how enrollment is counted; at least one source puts it at 110,000; the National Center for Education Statistics has it at just over 85,500 students (including both undergraduate and graduate students, on campus and in distance-education programs).

Liberty operates an American Bar Association-accredited law school, and offers more than 500 programs, including four on-campus doctoral programs and several other schools, including a business, divinity, and osteopathic medical school. It has also become the locus of Republican evangelical politics in the United States. Much of this growth, and its increasing politicization, was the result of policies initiated and managed (many insiders say micro-managed) by Jerry Jr., who endorsed candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and has remained a stalwart supporter since.

It is also relentlessly sectarian. Its biology department is heavily invested in “creation science.” It has a strict honor code, which bars premarital sex and prohibits students of the opposite sex from visiting privately with one another. It has a disputed record on respect for LGBT students (Campus Pride, a campus-oriented gay rights organization, rated Liberty as one of the least respectful universities in America of LGBT rights). The code also bans consumption of alcohol and tobacco and “attendance at a dance.” In 2018, the university administration rejected its Student Government Association’s call to permit off-campus drinking, tobacco use, and profanity.

Over the years, Falwell gained a reputation as a micro-manager of operations and image that led many administrators and faculty members, especially during the Trump years, to fear Falwell’s many intrusions into campus life and values.

Aside from its law school, Liberty is a tenureless institution, in which professors are at the mercy of year-to-year contracts. Professors who are terminated, many in the late spring when it is too late to find other employment, were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, an extremely uncommon practice among American universities. During the Falwell-Trump years, many voices claimed that it became a place in which one faced dismissal for failing to hew to Falwell’s political choices — for example, Liberty’s board chairman, who cautioned Falwell against endorsing anyone in the presidential race, was forced into leaving the board when he expressed disapproval of Falwell’s endorsement of Trump in early 2016.

Liberty claims to be open to all points of view, but it dismantled the campus College Democrats, denying it recognition and funding. Even Christian ministers were refused admission to campus or in some instances unceremoniously removed on obviously flimsy pretexts if they did not espouse the Trump line.

Falwell routinely censored the student paper, The Champion, which until the last few years was at least nominally student-run. In one noted instance, an editor dared to contact a Virginia state agency to ask about campus crime statistics (Liberty did not publish such data). The editor was forced to apologize for calling the agency, as if digging for facts is journalistic wrongdoing, if not a mortal sin. Ultimately, the university took over the student newspaper, refused to appoint a student editor, and apparently now runs it as an arm of the university administration. Meet Jerry Falwell Jr., Snowflake.

The incidents piled up. The Washington Post reported that in recent months alumni and other university opponents of Falwell put together a list of 88 public controversies since 2015 that, in their view, required his removal from governance.

In September 2019, Politico gave voice to dozens of sources who said that

Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains. . . . ‘We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,’ said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. ‘We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.’

Along the way, Falwell Jr. has been criticized for a variety of public statements that read as sexist, anti-Muslim, and racist. This past spring, for example, Falwell ridiculed Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s social-distancing orders by posting a mock-up of a face mask showing Northam in blackface, echoing the bizarre contretemps over the revelation a year before that the governor had been depicted in his medical school yearbook decades earlier standing next to people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes (or perhaps was himself one of those depicted). Falwell’s rehashing of the controversy, by retweeting the image, led four black staff members to resign in protest.

Among other allegations that Brandon Ambrosino, author of the Politico expose, brought to light was the startling revelation that one of Liberty’s employees, through a side business, was hired “to manipulate online polls in Trump’s favor,” including helping Michael Cohen rig a poll before Trump even became a candidate. Said one Liberty alum: “You can’t say this is a Christian university, but then everything that comes out of your mouth is about Trump.”

After Liberty’s spring break this year, Falwell ostentatiously announced that despite medical recommendations, he was reopening the university, prompting outrage from a number of constituencies, including black alumni. An open letter that began with 36 African-American alumni calling on Falwell to step down and to pursue politics on his own terms morphed into a change.org petition that garnered 37,000 signatures in three months. Voices grew louder that Falwell should resign. In response, he threatened lawsuits against reporters and publishers who covered the turmoil over the spread of Covid on campus. Responding to the outcry, he issued a rare, if weak, apology for the racist imagery he tweeted, but resisted calls for his departure.

Despite the unease of many members of the Liberty community, including religious leaders and trustees, Falwell maintained his micro-managerial grip on the university into the summer of 2020. Through the university that he controlled, he remained an apologist for the Trump Administration and right-wing politics generally. Liberty appeared to have abandoned academic values, such as the intellectual independence of and job security for the faculty, freedom of inquiry for students, and a free press. It intruded clumsily into cultural matters, offending some of its constituents and bringing unwanted attention to its seeming merger with the national Republican Party. It likely engaged in financial corruption, including various violations of the federal tax code. Liberty had become, according to a trustee quoted in the Politico expose, “a totally dysfunctional organization . . . very similar to Trump’s White House.” But the Board remained unmoved and inert.

Until two months ago.

On August 2, Falwell posted on Instagram the by now notorious photograph depicting him with his arm around the waist of a young woman, said to be his wife’s assistant. Both Falwell and the woman had bare bellies shown disappearing into unzipped pants. The image was not pornographic but it was crude and provocative. In his other hand, Falwell held a glass containing a dark liquid. His caption to the photo said: “I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”

That evening, a Houston Chronicle reporter tweeted the unzipped photo and related pictures from a screen grab. Falwell deleted his Instagram versions, but the damage was done. By Monday afternoon, August 3, the photos were the talk of the Twitterverse and within hours proclaimed in national headlines. Reactions were uniformly negative, even blistering. Hypocrisy was a major theme:

“If you’re running the largest Christian university in America maybe don’t put photos of yourself on social media with your pants undone on a yacht — with random women in bad wigs,” Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Sen. John McCain, wrote on Twitter. “So gross, so hypocritical.”

On Friday, August 7, the Liberty University board of trustees finally acted, sending their president to a pasture labeled “indefinite leave”—with pay. The decision may have been fed by the negative publicity that had gathered in a widening stream over the past several years, but the tipping point was the simple embarrassment, as The Atlantic put it two days later, “that Falwell had openly flaunted immoral behavior.”

Still, “indefinite leave” is neither decisive nor terminal, particularly when you’re being paid and especially in the milieu of a redemption theology highly favored by evangelicals. As Elizabeth Spiers wrote in a post on The New York Review of Books website dated August 20:

Fortunately for Falwell, evangelicalism has built-in insurance for reputational damage, should a wealthy white man make the mistake of public licentiousness widely shared on the Web: the worst sins make for the best redemption stories. Even better, a fall from grace followed by a period of regret and repentance can be turned into a highly remunerative rehabilitation. That, in fact, has been many a traveling preacher’s grift from time immemorial.

So indefinite leave was just the right phrase for a planned return, as Spiers concluded: “For now, Jerry Falwell Jr. is laying low. To execute the formula correctly, you need a period of contemplation and regret. And after that brief intermission, you can start selling tickets for the redemption tour.”

But then the final embarrassment struck, a bother too rancid even for the stuffed noses of Liberty University’s board of trustees. On Sunday evening, August 23, Falwell told the Washington Examiner through a formal statement that a former “family friend” had had an affair with Falwell’s wife Becki eight years earlier and since then had attempted to blackmail the Falwells. Though they eventually cut off all contact, the blackmailer had been talking to an unnamed “specific member of the media” who “seemed just as obsessed [as the blackmailer] with the prurient, untrue aspects of this story, however fantastic.” These revelations seemed to have been issued to get Falwell out ahead of a tsunami about to swamp him.

The next day, Reuters published a long account of a sordid sex scandal involving one Giancarlo Granda, who met the Falwells in 2012 at the Fontainebleu Miami Beach Hotel, where he was a 20-year-old pool boy. Granda said he carried on an affair with Becki that lasted six years and that involved Jerry looking on while Becki and Giancarlo had sex. During those years Granda was also involved with the Falwells in business deals that a year earlier had become the focus of news stories linking Granda with Michael Cohen, hush-money payments, sexually explicit pictures, and the Trump endorsement.

After Falwell flip-flopped for a day on his intentions, Liberty’s board accepted his resignation on Tuesday, August 25. Elapsed time from unzipped to untethered: 23 days. Three weeks from the imperial throne to a farcical banishment (though with a multi-million dollar severance package intact).

Justice served? I don’t know, and perhaps no one does or ever can. It will take a long while, if it’s possible at all, to expunge Falwell’s operational decisions from the university’s culture. There have yet to be apologies for Liberty’s overreach. But one thing seems clear: It was not the sensationally unseemly conduct, the misguided public positions, or the undercover and probably corrupt ways in which business was conducted that troubled the university’s governing body or prompted it to act. What rattled the trustees enough to find their voices and begin to render judgment was a solitary self-inflicted offensive image that might have been shrugged off anywhere else. (Falwell himself tried to laugh it off, an indication that his luck and acuity had run out: he no longer recognized what would disturb his audience.) Another victim — and victory — for the power of giving offense in American life.